For the first time in more than four years, United Airlines is hiring in a big way. As many as 2,000 flight attendants will be added, said...

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CHICAGO — For the first time in more than four years, United Airlines is hiring in a big way.

As many as 2,000 flight attendants will be added, said Jane Allen, United’s senior vice president of onboard service.

The hiring is a tangible sign United intends to grow when it emerges from bankruptcy-court protection early next year.

This is particularly true internationally, where United has shifted more than half the seats it flies. International flights require more staffing than domestic trips.

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Since seeking court protection in December 2002, United’s work force has shrunk by more than 20,000 to about 60,000.

Many employees have seen pay and benefits reduced.

The attendant jobs will pay $15,500 to $23,500.

The Association of Flight Attendants greeted the news with mixed feelings.

“Absolutely it’s exciting that there are new hires coming to our company,” said Sarah Nelson Dela Cruz, the union’s spokeswoman.

“Getting out of bankruptcy and seeing some growth is exciting. It’s what we’ve spent the last three years sacrificing for, for United to do well,” she said.

Still, there are sour feelings within the attendants’ ranks. The jobs became less attractive when United terminated the pension plan this year, Dela Cruz said.

“Many have determined they absolutely have to find a different career in order to save for their retirement,” Dela Cruz said.

The airline called back the remainder of its laid-off attendants last month.

United has 17,000 flight attendants, although only about 15,500 are active. The remainder are unable to fly because of medical conditions, personal leaves or other reasons.

The move by the Chicago-based carrier comes as other airlines reduce work forces and slash benefits.

Delta Air Lines plans widescale employee reductions, and Northwest Airlines said it will lay off 1,400 flight attendants by the end of the year. Both Delta and Northwest sought bankruptcy protection in September.

Laid-off flight attendants of other airlines can apply at United, and their experience will be considered, Allen said.

Applications will only be available at beginning Sunday. Interviewing will begin within weeks.

The first seven-week training session begins in January.

The initial round of hires will be based in Washington, D.C., with Chicago added soon after, Allen said.

Applicants must be at least 21, have a high school diploma or the equivalent and speak English.

There are also requirements unique to the airline industry — they can’t be over 6 feet 4 inches and must be able to reach up 82 inches.

New flight attendants are paid $17.22 an hour, and are guaranteed 75 hours of work a month, according to terms of the airline’s agreement with the flight attendants’ union. That works out to about $15,500 a year.

The attendants would typically work more than the minimum each month, a United spokeswoman said. The airline estimates most will earn about $23,500 their first year.

Many are attracted to the flight privileges that come with employment, Allen said.